The backlash against feminism in the US during the 1970s was led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America.
Cate Blanchett’s new TV series tells the story of American anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly. She talks equality, isolating with the family and vacuuming.
By Jenny Cooney – www.smh.com.au
It was late February in Germany but the frigid winter weather didn’t dampen spirits inside the reception honouring an impressive group of Australian films and television series premiering at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. Sunday Life was there to see the Australian ambassador to Germany, Lynette Wood, toast talent that included Cate Blanchett, Jack Thompson, Asher Keddie and Aaron Pedersen.
Cate and her husband, Andrew Upton, had flown in for 48 hours to celebrate the world premiere of her refugee drama series, Stateless, and the background noise about the emergence of COVID-19 was barely a blip on our radars that night. “Maybe we were just too busy having our heads in the sand,” Cate laments as we reconnect on the phone from opposite sides of the world to talk about her upcoming TV series, Mrs. America.
That reception would be the last party for both of us before the world came to a halt. Cate is now hunkering down at her East Sussex home, in the English countryside, with Upton and their four children – sons Dashiell, 18, Roman, 16, and Ignatius, 11, and five-year-old daughter Edith.
“What is revealing to all of us is that viruses don’t recognise international borders,” Cate suggests as we grapple with the new normal. “You can’t just look at the statistics in England, because you are living in England; you need to know what’s happening in France, Australia, America, Germany and all around the world because of how connected we all are.
“The virus is also revealing that the system we are living in is very fragile and has pointed out all the cracks we need to fix should this happen again.”
Although the family have been living in England for five years, ever since adopting their daughter Edith, the 50-year-old is keeping a close eye on her mother, who’s self-isolating in Australia, and staying connected with everyone Down Under.
“I was talking to a friend in Queensland and I am in awe of the doctors and nurses who are on the front lines as it’s terrifying for them,” she says with a tremor in her voice. “They’ve got children of their own, but they’re so committed and I have such profound respect and empathy for the position they’re in.”
Mrs. America tells the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution, which would have removed legal distinctions on the basis of gender. The backlash against feminism in the 1970s was led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, played by Cate. The story is also told through the eyes of the feminist women of that era, including Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks).
With seven Oscar nominations, two Oscar wins and three Golden Globe awards under her belt, the celebrated actor didn’t overthink her decision to make back-to-back TV projects.
“It’s ironic isn’t it, having not entered the television space at all, that my last year has been taken up with acting in and producing two pieces of television,” she acknowledges. “But they were two things that really needed to get made and I wanted to help scaffold the conversation around the issues that come up with both projects, the notions of equality and what that means to men and women.”
Cate is warm and chatty, but also not one to suffer fools. She recounts a recent interview in which a question about how she combined marriage and her career got her bristling.
“Here we are in 2020 and we’re still being asked those same questions that my male counterparts just do not get asked. I don’t think the conversation has really changed around that since 1971, when Mrs. America starts.”
“Whether we spend our time primarily in the home, or in the workforce and also have a family, or we just devote ourselves entirely to our career, there is still a sense that we alone have to make it work and that if we fail, it’s our responsibility.”
If you’ve never heard of Phyllis Schlafly, you’re not alone. “I had tangentially heard about her but then I saw Trump attending her funeral [in 2016] and I thought, ‘Who is this woman?’ ” Cate tells me. “At the same time, I’d met with [former Mad Men writer] Dahvi Waller to talk about this project and it got me thinking about why Phyllis was so internally important to the Republican Party but not widely known outside of those circles.”
Phyllis Schlafly was a self-described housewife from Illinois with six children and a popular newsletter promoting her conservative, anti-feminist values. In 1972, she launched the national campaign against the ERA, which had passed both chambers of Congress. The proposed amendment then required a three-quarters majority of US states to ratify it within a seven-year deadline.
Although 30 of the 38 necessary states ratified the ERA within a year, Schlafly’s campaign – which argued that the measure would lead to gender-neutral bathrooms, same-sex marriage and women being drafted to fight in Vietnam – shifted the conversation and was considered largely responsible for the amendment falling short by three states.
Cate notes that a 2001 survey revealed most Americans thought the US Constitution already granted men and women equal rights. “But it was not specified. That fact affects not only our situation as women, but also men and people of various sexual and gender identifications and people who live on the fringes. None of us can walk into any space and say, ‘I am equal because the Constitution says so.’ ”
Cate says Australian feminist Germaine Greer “profoundly rocked my world”, and that she’s always embraced the fight for gender equality.
“In my high school years, there was a big question about whether you identified as a feminist or not and I just knew in my DNA that women were equal to men,” she continues.
“I was raised by a single parent; my grandmother lived with us and my mother had to work, yet she didn’t really identify as a feminist because she’d grown up with the rhetoric of that era. Phyllis Schlafly was very adept at suggesting that if you were feminist, you were anti-family – and that really created a stigma.”
Despite the quintessentially American nature of the story, Cate was thrilled when fellow Aussie Rose Byrne agreed to portray feminist icon Gloria Steinem. However, Rose and Cate didn’t spend much time together during the shoot because they never shared a scene.
As Rose explains, “Unfortunately, Gloria and Phyllis never met, because Gloria always refused to debate her or be photographed with her, to avoid giving her more press. But we had a few family dinners and I’d see Cate on set in passing and sometimes sneak by the monitor, just to see her work.”
Sarah Paulson, who worked with Cate on Carol (2015) and Ocean’s Eight (2018) before joining the cast as Schlafly’s neighbour and supporter, enthuses about her friend and boss.
“She makes everything look easy, even when she’s shooting until three, four or five am. I think the hardest part for Cate was that we were a largely female cast and crew spending a lot of time together, because the rest of us weren’t working every day.”
“We’d meet in the lobby most nights and all go to dinner. Poor Cate came out a few times but she was the only person who had a 5am call every day and lots of pages of dialogue to memorise. She also took her role as producer extremely seriously.”
As Cate and I chat, a rustle in the background gets her attention. “My daughter is colouring pages,” she says in a hushed voice. She fills me in on the challenges of home-schooling and recommends that parents looking for art projects check out English artist Keith Tyson’s Instagram handle, #IsolationArtSchool.
“We get a lot of ideas there, but we are just trying to keep things simple,” she says. “My eldest son’s exams have been disrupted, which is tough. I think this generation of school-goers has an incredible amount of difficulty to deal with, because of the pandemic. It will alter their sense of themselves, which makes me sad.”
She also laughs at the suggestion she’s taking self-isolation in her stride, insisting, “Hey, I did the vacuuming today and just that felt like an achievement!”
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale April 26.